Sunday, July 1, 2012

Collaborating across cultures

CollabThe Working Knowledge newsletter sent me an essay on Collaborating Across Cultures last week that I thought was really interesting.  It summarizes research by Roy Y.J. Chua, an organization researcher investigating how Western businesses build working relationships with China.

I’ve always found expatriate life to be professionally stimulating as well as personally enriching.  Interactions with Dutch, British, an Japanese scientists often surface new ideas, technologies, and perspectives.  These help me to ask broader questions, to recognize the limits of my own assumptions, and to adopt alternative solutions that improve the quality of my work.

This is also the starting point for Dr. Chua’s  research:

Innovative products and deals are developed when (cross-cultural) conversations bring together disparate ideas that have never previously been connected…resulting in novel combinations of ideas. 

He also notes that cross—cultural interactions foster reflective thinking about cultural assumptions and heightened awareness of novel aspects of foreign thought and environments, all of which can heighten creativity.

But the benefit is lost if the relationship degrades into miscommunication and misunderstanding, if people are unwilling to offer their ideas for fear of having them stolen or ridiculed.  In short, they have to trust one another for collaboration to work.

So if mutual trust is the key, then how do you build it between dissimilar people?

The study shows that trust comes more easily between individuals who share two qualities.  They can can each perceive and understand the other’s different social contexts, and they are able to select and adapt their speech, actions, and behaviors in response.

He gives this the unwieldy designation ‘Cultural Metacognition’, but it’s easy to see what it means in practice. 

When posed with a problem, someone who scores high in these qualities is adept at working out differences in how it’s is represented by two different cultures.  They can then use that insight to tailor their approach, building respect and rapport that facilitates finding a solution.

Building trust is thus important, but all trust is not created equal.  Cognition-based trust, respect for each other’s competence and reliability, is not the most important.  Rather, Affect-based trust, which captures reciprocal emotions, matters.  How do you feel about them; how much concern do you think that they have for you?  Do you feel like you are both on the same wavelength, that you share personal interests?  Do you have one another’s best interests at heart?

Researchers put this to test with a  simple experiment to see how well teams, each consisting of a cross-cultural pair, performed on a collaborative task.  Half of the teams were allowed 10 minutes to talk and get to know one another before they were presented with the task while the other half weren't.   The team given the personal time, that scored higher on measures of Affective trust, did better.  But the researchers also found that even if only one member of the team scored high in cultural metacognition, able to understand and adapt to the other, then creativity was also enhanced.

Their conclusions really drive home one point that I’ve always believed: that making time for small talk before getting down to business is vital for successful work.  But it also suggests that you have to enter the conversation with an open mind, listening and learning, if the conversation is to create lasting benefit.

The full article is available on Dr. Chua’s website or Chua, R. Y. J., et al. Collaborating across cultures: Cultural metacognition and affect-based trust in creative collaboration.
Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (2012).

Photo credit to Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

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